- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. You won't hear Javier Sanchez, pride of the TearDrop minitour, bellyaching about his U.S. Open accommodations. Sure, it would be nice to bunk at Clint Eastwood's place, but the local Hilton is just fine by him. "For me," he says, "it's like living in a palace."

Staying in a hotel isn't usually a meaningful experience for most golf pros. Hiltons, Hyatts, Marriotts who can tell 'em apart? But Sanchez isn't like most golf pros. Most golf pros didn't sneak into this country as an illegal alien and get a job at Holiday Inn collecting bed sheets. And most pros didn't hide in the guest rooms of said Holiday Inn whenever immigrations officials came calling, which apparently was often.

"There were a lot of close calls," says Sanchez.

So whenever a member of the housekeeping staff invariably Spanish-speaking has come in to clean his room this week, Sanchez has made a point of striking up a conversation. After all, he has as much in common with a chambermaid as with a Cook (John) or a Baker (-Finch).

"I used to do what you do," he tells them. "No fooling. I was 17, and I had just sneaked across the Mexican border with a borrowed green card. Hotel work was about the only work I could find that and washing dishes in a restaurant. I couldn't speak a word of English then … and now look at me. I'm playing in the U.S. Open."

He's not doing it to brag far from it. He's doing it to let them know that Spanish-speaking people, too, can live their dreams, even hotel housekeepers. "Anything's possible," he says. "I'm proof of that."

There's no more unlikely U.S. Open entrant than Javier Sanchez. Compared to him, Tiger Woods, the poster child for minority golf, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Sanchez grew up in Taistan, Mexico, in a farmhouse with no running water and no electricity. The local school had only one room and was an hour and a half away by horseback.

"The first time I saw TV was when I went to live with my uncle in the States," he says. "All we had [in Mexico] was a little radio. I didn't know anything about golf. My parents still don't. I wish they did."

Four years later, at the advanced age of 21, Sanchez took up the sport. He was working as a cook at the Palo Alto (Calif.) Municipal Golf Course at the time, and his friends there encouraged him to play. So he bought a set of used clubs, and at the end of the day he would "go out to the driving range and not even hit a ball, just watch people swing," he says. After they left, he would try to imitate what they had done, and he quickly found "I was pretty good at getting the ball in the air."

A grinder was born. Being used to hard work indeed, the most menial kind of labor Sanchez willingly embraced the toils of golf. "I would practice my putting 'til 9 or 10 at night," he says. "The lights from the parking lot would light the green." Later on, he got some instruction from the coach at Palo Alto Community College, Hank Polex, and was on his way.

Sanchez even ran a driving range in Fremont, Calif., for a spell, further cementing his "Tin Cup" status. (Interesting, though, that in the movie, the Mexican character, played by Cheech Marin, was the caddy.) From there it was on to the minor leagues the T.C. Jordan Tour, the Nike Tour, the TearDrop Tour but that's as far as his talent has taken him … except at U.S. Open qualifying time. For whatever reason, Sanchez is a killer in Open qualifiers. He got into four straight Opens from 1993 to '96 and did it again this year at 41, shooting the low score in both local and sectional qualifying in Atlanta.

"Playing in this Open means so much to me, being from the area," he says. "My parents live in Redwood City now, an hour and a half away, and I have friends and relatives here, too. I wanted to play [in the '98 Open] at Olympic for the same reason, but I guess I wanted it too much because I screwed up [and didn't qualify]."

The first three times Sanchez played in the Open, "it was just overwhelming," he says, and he failed to break 75. But his last Open went much better; he shot a 71 in the opening round and actually made the cut. And now he's hoping for some more magic at Pebble Beach, perhaps the most famous golf course in America. And hey, why not? He did tie for second recently in the Virginia Beach Classic.

Sanchez first played Pebble about 14 years ago, he guesses. The memory brings a smile to his face. He and some friends were driving on 17-Mile Road one day, along the 15th fairway, and "we stopped the car, hit shots to the green and drove away" lest they be arrested by the Golf Police.

This time Javier Sanchez plans to play the whole course maybe even more than twice.

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